People of a Thousand Towns The Online Catalog of Photographs of Jewish Life in Prewar Eastern Europe

Posted By Ann Rabinowitz

Formal portrait of a Jewish Socialist Bund group in Siauliai, Lithuania
(l-r) David Moffs ("now in Pretoria, South Africa"), Morris Vinocur (Weiner, "now in Chicago"), "Orke" Kessler, Bernard Feldman (now "Forward" representative in Springfield, Ma.)
('Forward' spread, 1937).

Sometimes, we forget to look close at hand and at resources that are familiar to us. One such resource is YIVO which I have utilized many times with great success. However, I had not visited their online site People of a Thousand Towns, which was suggested by Jesse Aaron Cohen, YIVO Photo and Film Archivist.

The site is made possible through the generous support of The Charles H. Revson Foundation, the Rita Poretsky Foundation and the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Inc., and is a remarkable visual odyssey across Eastern Europe and the countries of Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuanian, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, as they appeared during the period pre-World War II. The 17,000 photographs are taken from a number of record groups held by YIVO and you can learn more about them by clicking here.

In order to use the catalog of photographs, you must be registered and then you can search by a number of criteria including town, key word, photographer, etc. One of the enticing things about utilizing the database is that you can now trace when you find in other related sources and gain additional information about the individuals or sites pictured.

An instance is my search on the town of Siauliai, Lithuania, resulted in the photograph above which interested me as it stated where the people were presently located. Noting that David Moffs was living in Pretoria, SA, in 1937, I decided to look him up on the South Africa RootsWeb site and found that he had died in 1946 and was buried in the Pretoria Cemetery. I further learned by going to the National Archives of South Africa that his surviving wife was Ethel Lipschitz Moffs and that she died in 1971.

Curious about what happened to David Moffs, I contacted my fellow South Africa SIG American Coordinator, Roy Ogus. He remembered a Moffs family and agreed to contact them and see if David Moffs was their relative. In the meantime, Roy mentioned that he had seen a message on GENI, the online family tree tool regarding the Moffs family. He gave me the contact and it turned out that her great grandfather Isaac Moffs was a brother of David Moffs. Her father, Bertie Friedlander, had known David Moffs and I sent him the photograph to further identify him.

Another photograph found was one of the 16th Lithuanian Division. One of those shown was a solder by the name of Dushkes.

1924 Studio portrait of uniformed Jewish soldiers from the Sixth Regiment of the Lithuanian Army
(seated, l - r) Goldberg, Zvulun Berebitsher, Kharpas
(standing, l - r) Melamdovitsh, Romanov, and Dushkes

I decided to look in the recently published book edited by Dorothy Leivers “Road to Victory” which covers the topic of the 16th Lithuanian Division. There on page 308, I learned that there was a Faivel Dushkes who was born in 1912 and died in 1943.

Further I learned that his wife was Braina and his daughter was Raya Shapira. Since the photo above was taken in 1924, it seemed unlikely that this Dushkes was the correct one even though their photos appeared to be identical. There was another Dushkes mentioned in the book, Chaim Dushkes, but his dates were not given, so it was hard to determine if he was the correct one. Chaim Dushkes was a well-known Jewish athlete who had participated in the Maccabiah and proved his mettle in the fighting. Another resource for locating members of the Dushkes family is Facebook which has a Dushkes group registered under Avra Cohen. The group was unfamiliar with him as well. So, he will remain anonymous until someone happens to note him in the photograph and recognize who he might be.

My next exploration of the YIVO database was under the key word “orphanage”. Here I found some excellent photos of various orphanages, but particularly ones from Kaunas and Vilnius. By going through the photos, I was able to determine that there had been several different orphanages sponsored by various individuals or organizations. This was important in differentiating between various sources which I had previously had access to.

The photographs not only provided images of the buildings, but many of the children and their activities.

The orphanages were:

The M. Rozenblium Orphanage in Kaunas in 1936

View of the M. Rozenblium Orphanage (Yiddish and Lithuanian sign over entrance).
A one-story brick building with a wooden fence.
Established in 1924.

The Rabbi Yitschok Elchonon Spektor Orphanage, in Kaunas, in 1927.

1927 - Outdoor portrait of the board, teachers and students of the Rabbi Yitschok Elchonon Spektor Orphanage, founded in 1905.
(Back row, center) two boys hold up a portrait of Spektor. (From an album.)

The OZE (Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jewish Population) Orphanage, in Kaunas, 1930.

1930 - Boys from the OZE (Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jewish Population) orphanage pose waiting on the steps of the school for a medical examination.


Studio portrait of a group of teen-agers at a Children's Home: (written in Yiddish on back) "As a memento to our friend and teacher, in commemoration of the Children's Home..."

Another area I explored was significant events which occurred and can be dated. These types of events can help researchers understand why family members may have left a certain locale and moved elsewhere. One event was the catastrophic flood of the Daugava River in Daugavpils, Latvia, which occurred in April, 1922, and left 20,000 homeless.

The river, the largest in Latvia at 1,000 km in length, was controlled by a dam built in 1841, but was prone to major flooding in winter and springtime when ice broke up and melted.

Despite this dam, the river overflowed its banks and left the town submerged and filled with chunks of ice and debris. A series of remarkable images of this event were provided including the following one:

After the flood: a street submerged in water;
(center) people in a boat;
(Latvian and Russian sign at left) "9. A. Giber. Delicatessen..."
(Inscribed on photo) "Daugavpils Flood."

Photographs of religious buildings and religious leaders are prominent amongst the items in the YIVO database. A good example is the following of the Belzer Rebbe and his flock.
"With his aide's strength. The Belzer [leader of the Belzer Hasidim, at center in fur-trimmed coat and hat], may he enjoy good health, is alas not very well; so his aide and Hasidim take him to drink mineral water..." ('Forward' Yiddish caption.),Carlsbad, September 20, 1931.

Images of well-known Jews are typified by a photograph of Solomon Rozanis, historian of the Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria.

"The historian Solomon Rozanis, an authority on the history of Sephardic Jews." (From a 'Jewish Daily Forward' photo spread: "Pictures Of Jewish Life In Bulgaria.")

Much of what can be learned of our ancestral shtetls and our families can come from wonderful evocative images such as are found in the YIVO collection. The collection is well-worth visiting either in person or online. Remember, digging up paper records is not the only means of “finding” our relatives.

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